The Train Station

My beautifully talented daughter asked me recently if I wanted to read an essay she had written for school. I said yes and she handed me a couple sheets of paper. I was soon breathless as I savored some of the most beautiful writing I had ever read. That is not maternal hyperbole, nor is it false modesty when I say it’s better than anything I could write. I prefer to write the meat of the story and rarely do I spend enough time creating such vivid imagery.

There are storytellers – I count myself as an amateur one. Brandon Sanderson is an extremely talented and successful one. But then there are people who write poetry in prose. Whose words are so beautifully selected and placed with each other that it feels like you are doing more than reading a story – you are actually viewing a painting or intricate tapestry. I love many authors but put few in this category. Patrick Rothfuss is the only one that comes readily to mind. This essay evoked a similar reaction from me.

I hope I haven’t now oversold her story. With her permission, I am posting it below:

 

I thanked the ticket master as I clutched my ticket and walked further into the train station, busy with throngs of people coming or going. The walls seemed alive with the echoes of laughter, arguments, and guitar playing, both long gone and currently reverberating. Its skin crawled with scribbled declarations of love and sprayed-on masterpieces, the tiles desperately in need of a good washing. The grimy fluorescent lights above seemed to flicker erratically in time with my heart, creating an effect almost like I was at a party. All around me, people hurried, their lives obviously much more important than mine; my body became a tiny rowboat, lost in the stormy bustle, jostled from side to side by the waves of people. Eager to gain a short reprieve, I stepped onto an empty platform, feeling weary. It was then I happened to glance up and across the tracks. Exactly opposite me stood a girl whose countenance appeared to mirror my own. It seemed as if she too felt a disconnect from the hordes of people passing by. The noise of the crowded station faded away as we stared at each other for a brief second that seemed to last an eternity. Her eyes looked like they understood my annoyance with and simultaneous longing for all the people constantly streaming through the area, so deep and wise I tried not to fall into them. Suddenly, I wanted to meet this girl, take her to coffee, and become her best friend; the one person who seemed to instantly know me to my core. Just as I raised my hand to give a small wave, she opened her mouth, as if about to say something. A train came roaring through. When it had passed, the girl was no longer there. My hand fell limply to my side, the magical moment gone. The lights returned to their dull flickering, and the noise of the crowd came rushing back with sudden ferocity. My heart burned as if branded by a cattle iron. I wasn’t sure quite why, but I was almost certain I had just missed something very important. All around me, mothers, brothers, and children continued to carry about their business like nothing had happened. In fact, nothing had actually happened. However, nobody except myself seemed to care about the importance of that missed interaction with the girl across the train station. As my train came roaring into the platform, I had to wonder if this other girl, seemingly great in her compassion, would miss that opportunity for interaction with me. As I wondered, my hand pulled my phone out of my pocket, slipping my earbuds into place, and my life became much more important than anyone else’s.

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Waiting on Patrick Rothfuss

I don’t like to read book series that aren’t finished yet. My husband knows this about me. It’s too stressful for me to wait until the next book comes out. The anticipation kills me. I was late to the Dark Tower waiting game but it was still tough – especially when Stephen King was struck by a van. What if he had died?! It took him 22 years to finish that series of seven books. And no, that doesn’t come out to a book every three years because the last three books all came out in a little over a year span. Readers were waiting five or six years between books.

Speaking of authors dying before finishing their masterpieces, I found my way to The Wheel of Time before the series was completed and not long before the author, Robert Jordan, died, work unfinished. That fourteen book series took 23 years and two authors and introduced me to Brandon Sanderson, the author brought in to interpret Jordan’s notes and finish the series.

Betwen Harry Potter and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (another not-finished series I’m engrossed in) and Wheel of Time, I had been caught up in a small circle of authors for a number of years. When I came up for air, my first instinct was to read some more Sanderson. So I did.

I read a great novella called Legion. I read his Mistborn trilogy. I read the Rithmatist and Steelheart, accidentally stumbling into two more incomplete trilogies. And then I paused to consider what to read next. My husband suggested I try another author besides Sanderson.

He suggested The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. A friend of ours had met Mr. Rothfuss and even had him sign a copy of the book for my husband. The note the author wrote to my husband made it clear he was of a similar personality to the friend, which is, to say the least, a bit off-kilter.

I was blown away my Pat’s writing. The fantasy world he created was impressive, as was the characters, the magic system, the storytelling. But it was the writing that really stood out to me. It was like reading poetry in novel form. In the epilogue of the book, he described silence. Specifically a silence of three parts. I could feel that silence. My ears pulsed with the absence of sound. I was mesmerized.

I’ve read many fine authors who have told gripping stories. Many deliver great dialogue. Gabaldon, in particular, tells a story with such an impressive vocabulary that I’m in search of a dictionary. But I cannot recall another author that created such vivid imagery, who described what I should see and hear so beautifully. I quickly started the second book.

And then my husband dropped the bombshell. The series wasn’t finished. That’s right. It wasn’t finished. I was furious – not with Patrick Rothfuss, whose third book I was now dying to read. But with my husband, who had led me into this trap.

As is the case with most readers, though – well, as it should be with most readers – I eventually fell into a comfortable state of waiting. The burn for the next book died down as I went on with my life and other books. I’m now in a state where I’ll need to re-read the books to regain that eager, give-it-to-me-now state of anticipation.

And then I followed Patrick Rothfuss on Facebook. He tells really cute stories about his kids and posts some funny stuff. That’s why I followed him. Then I learned that not everyone is capable of falling into that comfortable state of waiting. Some people get downright irate if authors don’t publish within a window that these readers think is appropriate. And they tell the authors about it every chance they get. And they get pretty ugly about it. And then other people defend the authors.

The arguments don’t change much and it doesn’t seem to matter what post is there. They’ll complain on any post, whether it’s about his books or not. I found it laughable. And sad. But it also got me to thinking.

Do authors owe anything to their readers? The complainers say yes. They say that the authors are getting paid to do a job and they need to get off Facebook and quit operating charities and do their job. Dammit. The supporters say the authors are sharing their creative talent with us and they don’t owe us anything. They can share or not share, their choice. The complainers turn red in the face at that and remind the supporters that these authors are getting paid! They aren’t sharing – they are selling a product.

I basically fall on the side of the supporters. I mean, of course, if an author is on contract, he or she needs to finish the book(s) on whatever schedule he or she agreed to. But otherwise?  Are movie makers required to make more movies after a big success? Are artists required to draw more or paint more? Does Annie Leibovitz have to keep taking pictures even if she’d rather operate a charity or become an accountant?

And the complainers seem to forget this is a creative process. If the writer gets writer’s block, he can’t just churn it out anyway. It’s not like building a house. He’s creating a world and immersing us in it. The complainers will remind us all that Rothfuss said the books were all finished – he was just editing. Ok, so he has since said he regrets making the comment and for him, the bulk of the work is in the editing. He’s kind of obsessive about it. So get over it. He’s not ready to share the story.

Ironically, the complainers have often presented one of my other favorite authors for contrast: Brandon Sanderson. They talk about how many books he publishes and how good they are. I like Sanderson. I enjoy his books. A lot. He’s a great story teller. But his books are not Rothfuss quality. They don’t have the same artistic imagery. He’s pulp fiction in comparison. So of course his books don’t take as much time.

But even if they were as good… who the bleep cares? I know a lot of computer programmers. Some of them code really, really fast. Others take longer. Some have more bugs in their code or it’s not structured well or not easy to read. Whatever. Fact is, you can’t ask the slow coders to code faster. You either accept their pace or you don’t. As a supervisor of computer programmers, a person can decide the person’s pace is good or fire them. That’s it. Readers have the same choice. Accept the author as he or she is… or move along.

So if I could, I’d tell all the complainers this: grow up. No one owes you anything. You are just being ugly and childish. There are so many good books by good authors out there that there is absolutely no way you could get through them all before Pat finished the final book in his Kingkiller Chronicles – even if it took him twenty years. So go read some of those. Read Sanderson. He’ll keep you busy. I get it. I know what it’s like to want the rest of the story. But yelling at the author won’t do any good. Get a life. Please. Let the rest of us enjoy the person without your vitriol.

Dangerous Women

I hope you will humor me with an unusual blog post… for me, at least.  I’d like to give a book review.  One that morphs into a bit of an author review.  I am a huge fan of Diana Gabaldon and her Outlander series.  I mean, huge.  So huge that for my birthday, my husband bought two very expensive tickets for me and a fellow-fan friend to go watch her talk about her upcoming book this summer.  We can hardly wait.

Since I (of course) follow her on Facebook, I had also been looking forward to her short story “Virgins” in the Dangerous Women anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, released December of last year.  I pre-ordered the anthology months ahead of time and eagerly anticipated its download to my Kindle.  When it arrived, I used the Table of Contents to navigate to her story first.

Now, I was coming off of a bit of a Brandon Sanderson binge.  I remarked to my husband when it showed up, that 6 of the 7 most recent books on my Kindle had Sanderson in them.  I had downloaded a different anthology that he was in (haven’t read it yet) and then read all four of his wonderful, magical, delightful, unpredictable Mistborn books and his also wonderful, magical, delightful, maybe slightly-more-predictable children’s book, The Rithmatist.

“Too bad he’s not in this anthology too,” I remarked.

“I don’t think he’s quite the same type of author as Gabaldon and Martin,” he replied, referring to their propensity for violence and sex.  (Because of the scenes I choose to tell him about, I think he has a less-than-accurate view of Outlander if he takes the same disdainful view of it that he does A Game of Thrones.)

To my great amusement, when I concluded my reading of Virgins (it was ok – I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t enough on its own to redeem the price I paid for the entire anthology.  Too much anticipation, perhaps.), I noticed that Sanderson actually did have a story in the book: “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell”.

I fell in love.  It tells the story of an aging woman who runs an inn in some alternate dangerous world.  It had all the right short story twists and surprises and it exposed me to yet another Sanderson world that I sincerely hope I get to read more about some day.  There are 21 stories in this book and I read them over the course of 2 1/2 months, so I can’t remember them all clearly, but this one was easily one of my top 3-5 stories.

I then returned to the start of the book to see what these other authors had in store for me.

First up, Joe Abercrombie’s “Some Desperado.”  I will be searching for more books by this author.  The writing was excellent, the plot twists were great, character development wonderful.  Unlike with Sanderson’s tale, it didn’t leave me begging for more; it just left me satisfied.  And eager to read more of his works.

From there (no, I’m not going to review all 21 stories – just hitting the highlights!), I moved to Megan Abbott’s “My Heart is Either Broken,” the tale of a man whose wife is suspected of killing their daughter and he simply can’t come to terms with it.  In my mind, the perfect short story makes you think you know what’s going on, delivers a twist, and then another one, and you are left stunned.  This story delivered full force.  At this point, I was in love with the anthology because three consecutive stories had blown my socks off.

I yawned through the next one, not exactly sure which woman was supposed to be the dangerous one.  The next (“The Hands That Are Not There” by Melinda Snodgrass) intrigued me with the fantasy world it depicted and expertly pulled off one of those “so what’s real?” questions.

Then I got to Jim Butcher’s “Bombshells.”  Like Gabaldon’s “Virgins,” this story came out of his existing body of work, The Dresden Files, which sounded vaguely familiar to me.  I expected to perhaps not connect with the story since I wasn’t familiar with his series (neither the book nor TV series).  Nope.  Fell in love.  Asked for and received Dresden Files books for Christmas.

The next three (“Raisa Stepanova” by Carrie Vaughn, “Wrestling Jesus” by Joe R. Lansdale, and “Neighbors” by Megan Lindholm) were excellent reads.  The first is about an uber-competetive female Russian fighter pilot in WWII.  The next, about an old “professional” wrestler bewitched by a beautiful and seductive (to him, at least) woman.  The last, a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s and her warped view of her neighborhood around her.  I thoroughly enjoyed them all.

So far, I was feeling pretty good.  Then I read “I Know How to Pick ’Em” by Lawrence Block and it ticked me off.  Not the story, but its inclusion in this particular anthology.  Don’t get me wrong, the story was still brutal: a crime thriller with a really sadistic character graphically described.  Still, the slow nature of the reveal was good and the writing was solid.

*** Small Spoiler Alert – skip the next paragraph if you want ***

However, the anthology is described as “showcas[ing] the supposedly weaker sex’s capacity for magic, violence, and mayhem.”  And… slight spoiler alert here… this story appears, at first, to be describing a dangerous woman, but when it’s all said and done, you realize it’s just a depraved and dangerous man.  One that preys on unsuspecting women that he convinces himself are dangerous, but who actually aren’t.

*** End Spoiler Alert ***

So, while the story was good, I felt very strongly that the editors should not have included it.  It didn’t fit my (highly legalistic) interpretation of the intent of the collection.

“The Girl in the Mirror” by Lev Grossman, from the Magicians series, left me rolling my eyes.  I found the allegedly “dangerous” girl to be frivolous and full of herself and it left me feeling the entire story was frivolous.  I mean, I think it was the writer’s intent: it’s a teenage girl that thinks all the wrong things are important and she’s so much better and more important than she is.  But it annoyed me way too much.  And the ending fell flat for me. (Ironically, I just looked at a review of all the stories I found online, complete with grades, and this one was one of that reviewer’s favorites.  Different strokes, I guess.)

This post is getting long so I’ll try to wrap it up so I can get to my major discovery at the end of the book.  The last story in the anthology was Martin’s “The Princess and the Queen, or, the Blacks and the Greens” from his A Song of Ice and Fire series (often referred to by the name of the first book: A Game of Thrones).

Now, that series has been on my reading list for awhile now.  In fact, when I finished (finally!) reading The Wheel of Time, I put out a poll among my friends on what I should read next.  The choices were Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss, or A Song of Ice and Fire.

My husband strongly recommended Kingkiller, stating that I had been steeped in Sanderson long enough, and so that’s what I read.  (Rothfuss’s writing is simply amazing, by the way.  The only thing that upset me was that my husband tricked me into starting a series that was still in progress.)  I’ve since read Mistborn too so Martin’s epic tale was rising toward the top of my reading list.  I had imagined that I would read the Divergent series, then a couple of Sanderson books my family loves, then the new Outlander book, and by mid summer, get started on A Game of Thrones.

But now it’s slipped down around “if I can’t think of something else to read, maybe I’ll give it a try, just to see.”  I had just read 20 (for the most part) excellent examples of short fiction.  Those authors made me laugh and cry and swoon.  They made my heart race.  They made me care about the characters.  They surprised me.  Elated me.

Here’s how I would summarize Martin’s story: In grand historic tones, with sweeping brush strokes, he describes an epic battle for the throne between two tyrannical, unlikeable characters in which he introduces you to 50 characters with long titles and then kills 40 of them in horrifyingly awful ways, maims the other 10, and leaves one of them nominally on the throne by the end.  There is tremendous betrayal and backstabbing and turns of fate as the war rages on.

The problem was, I didn’t care about any of them.  None of them at all.  I picked a side early on – the throne seeker who the previous King had said was to be his heir, but she turned out to be just as awful as the other guy so I didn’t like her at all.  I had trouble keeping track of whose side people were on so I’d be reading about a battle between two lords and be unable to remember which side was which, so I had no sense of hope and anticipation on who I wanted to win.  Then he’d say stuff like “and 200 people died that day, including so-and-so, lord of thus-and-such.”  That was the first mention of so-and-so, so pray tell me, why do I care that he (in particular) died?  He’d also make strange statements (like “the Iron Throne cut her so astute observers knew her reign would be brief”) without explaining what any of that meant.

I found it tedious and uninteresting.  I read it just to be able to say I had finished them all.  I can only assume that if I was a Game of Thrones fan, I likely would have better understood what was happening and thus (hopefully) enjoyed it more.  But now I will likely never be a Game of Thrones fan.  I didn’t like the style of writing.  As one friend put it, I don’t want to have to take notes while I’m reading.  If he’s going to throw a whole bunch of people at me and kill off most of them, I’m not going to bother.

Maybe he gives more character development in his main stories.  Maybe I’d care about the characters and thus keep track better.  But here’s the thing.  I think it’s telling that two of the stories that I found kind of flat – this one and Gabaldon’s – were taken from existing universes.  I must assume, especially after reading the reviewer’s dislike of Virgins in the link above, that both authors wrote for their existing audiences instead of trying to pull more people in.  Contrast that to the Dresden Files tale (and, as it turns out, Joe Abercrombie’s tale, which I didn’t even know came from something larger), and I think these two big name authors failed the new readers.  I loved the latter two stories.  They were pulled off in a way that didn’t force readers to rely on their existing knowledge of the characters or the world.

I can vouch for Gabaldon.  Her stories are excellent, her writing superb.  She just didn’t quite pull off her usual success here in my mind.  Martin?  You can try to vouch for him if you want – I’ll listen, but there’s just too many great authors out there that, at this point, I know I would love to read.  I fear his stories will never again come so close to the front of my queue.